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Does Opuntia Cactus Have Health Benefits?
Diabetes is a huge health problem that affects people of all walks of life.The American Diabetes Association claims that Diabetes affects 9.3 percent of the American Population(American Diabetes Association), and the World Health Organization estimates that 347 million people are affected worldwide.(World Health Organization) Generally diabetes is controlled through insulin injections or pumps, and through modifying the sufferers diet to avoid things which can raise blood sugar, such as carbohydrates and sugary foods. In addition to these normal control measures, there has been interest, and a modest amount of research dedicated to finding out whether or not the Prickly Pear cactus, Cactuses of the Genus Opuntia have a beneficial effect on the health of people with diabetes. Opuntia Cactuses, popularly known as Nopal, are commonly consumed throughout Mexico and the Mexican community in the United States and Elsewhere, and have been introduced around the world. Opuntia cactuses were also commonly used as herbal medicine by the Mexican, and indigenous communities.(University of Texas) These cactuses grow plentifully in the wild, and are also grown widely for agricultural uses. This widespread availability means that any discovered health benefit could potentially be a great boon to disease treatment. I will mainly focus on the data regarding the diabetes research and the Opuntia genus of cactuses, but I will also discuss some of the other interesting medical research that has surrounded this common plant.
According to a paper by the Botanist M. Patrick Griffith, Opuntia Cactuses have been used medicinally since at least the 15th century. The cactuses contain Vitamin C, which made them an effective treatment for scurvy, and also contributed to their spread around the world. According to one of his paper’s in the American Journal of Bontany: Opuntia Cactuses were “Widely included in ships’ stores as insurance against scurvy[...]This practice is thought to have contributed greatly to the present naturalized range of Opuntia ficus-indica throughout arid and semiarid habitats of the world”(Griffith, 1916)
Some of the earliest research on the connection between Opuntia cactus and blood sugar happened during the 1990s. In one such experiment during this time period a team led by Christine Aguilar, and Gilbert Ramirez analyzed a series of studies that discovered that when given a dose of 500 g of Opuntia Cactus, patients with type-2 diabetes had a small decrease in blood serum glucose levels, and some other general improvements in their condition. According to Ramirez and Aguilar: "meta-analysis suggests Opuntia has a strong serum glucose reduction effect. Further review of these studies also indicate improvement in insulin levels, serum lipids, and body weight."(Aguilar, Ramirez 73) Despite the promising results, the sample size of the studies was not very large, and a lot more research was required.
Figure I - Table showing the decrease in Serum Glucose at different time Intervals after dosage. “0” is the starting baseline. (Aguilar, Ramirez 77)
A year after Ramirez and Aguilar published their research, another team led by a scientist named Augusto Trejo-González was able to replicate the same results in rats. He discovered that if he fed diabetic rats a combination of insulin and Opuntia abstract, that the rats would continue to have reduced blood serum levels even after being taken off of insulin. He was certain that the results were actually from the Opuntia extract, because the dosage made it unlikely that other factors could have had much of an influence. In his paper he says that “Although the mechanism of action is unknown, the magnitude of the glucose control by the small amount of Opuntia extract required (1 mg/kg body weight per day) preclude a predominant role for dietary fiber. These very encouraging results for diabetes control by the purified extract of this Opuntia cactus make the need for clinical studies in humans evident”(Trejo-González)
It is not until the 2000’s that that there were significant studies in which someone had taken up Trejo-González’s call for more human clinical studies. During 2007, Montserrat Bacardi-Gascon published a report in “Diabetes Care” that examined the effect that could be observed from adding Opuntia Cactus to Mexican breakfasts. According to the report: “These findings demonstrate that the addition of nopales to the usual Mexican breakfast among type 2 diabetic subjects induced a reduction in glucose concentration after the meal. The reduction in glycemic index obtained for the three meals was 21, 12, and 15 glycemic index units.” (Bacardi-Gascon 1264)
What is significant about this, is that glycemic index is a measure of how much a specific meal will increase blood serum glucose levels. According to the Glycemic Index Institute "In simple terms, foods can be assigned a glycemic index number based on the comparative increases in blood glucose (sugar) levels they produce when that food is consumed" (Glycemic Index Institute)
This means that the reduction of the glycemic index that Bacardi-Gascon had observed when Opuntia was added to the diet could potentially translate to a large difference in ultimate blood sugar levels coming from the meal.
Figure II - Prepared Opuntia Cactus, popularly known as “Nopal” or “Nopalitos” as part of a salad. (González del Cueto)
The results of all these studies showed a lot of promise, but there is still much more to be learned - there is no conclusive data on the actual mechanism that caused an improvement in the condition of diabetic patients, and it is not proven beyond all possible doubt that the results were completely caused by the . Despite the lack of clear information in this respect, there have been some other discoveries that can aid us in understanding possible effects of Opuntia cactus on other aspects of health. Part of the coloring of Opuntia fruit is caused by a pigment called Indicaxanthin. In 2004, a team of researchers from the University of Palermo discovered that this pigment, at least in Italian varieties of Opuntia, was verified to be have anti-oxidant properties. In an trial the team compared the antioxidant properties of Indicaxanthin to Trolox, an anti-oxidant commonly used as a standard baseline when testing anti-oxidant effects. According to this team’s report in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry “the extracts dose-dependently inhibited the organic hydroperoxide-stimulated red cell membrane lipid oxidation, as well as the metal-dependent and -independent low-density lipoprotein oxidation. The extract from the white fruit showed the highest protection in all models of lipid oxidation. Purified betanin and indicaxanthin were more effective than Trolox” (Butera et al) This data confirmed the antioxidant properties of indicaxanthin, and also indicated that betanin, another pigment in Opuntia fruit, also likely played an antioxidant role.
In 2014 another team of researchers followed up on this experiment by testing whether or not indicaxanthin had any effects on the leukocyte production of rats in which pleurisy(swelling of tissues surrounding the lungs) had been induced. (Leukocytes being a measure of inflammatory activity) The team killed the rats at various time intervals after having been induced with pleurisy, and discovered that those rats who had been pre-treated with indicaxanthin had a lower post-mortem leukocyte measurement than those were not treated with indicaxanthin. The abstract of the team’s report concludes that “When considering the high bioavailability of indicaxanthin in humans, our findings suggest that this dietary pigment has the potential to improve health and prevent inflammation-based disorders.”(Allegra et al)
Despite the research on the subject, it must be remembered that this research is still in the preliminary stages, and has not at this point met the rigorous standards required in order to have conclusive proof that the Opuntia cactus has medical use. Until many more studies are done, with larger numbers of people, and with better controls, the results will remain inconclusive. For this reason, no government agencies endorse Nopales to treat any illness. This being said, the USDA National Nutrient Database does report that Opuntia cactus has significant nutritional value when eaten as a vegetable. At this time there is has yet to be enough research to say conclusively whether or not there are any medical benefits from the consumption of Nopales, but we can easily conclude that the nutritional value is significant enough that it could be a benefit to certain people’s overall nutrition, and that Nopales are a valuable addition to any diet, so long as the person consuming the food is not allergic or otherwise unable to properly digest the food. The possible effects on blood sugar and on inflammation are highly speculative, but we can only hope that future research on Opuntia, and other common plants which may have medical applications will allow us to move beyond the realm of inconclusive studies and anecdotal herbal medicine, and will give us more answers so that we may discover valuable new ways to treat debilitating illnesses like diabetes.
Figure III - Nutritional Content of Nopal Cactus.(United States Department of Agriculture)
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